In yet another variation on the shopworn road picture in which two mismatched former buddies are forced to cross the country together Soul Men’s uneasy brand of overly broad humor and contrived situations is saved intermittently by some cool musical numbers. But alas it’s not enough. Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) are part of a major musical group led by Marcus Hooks (John Legend) who goes solo leaving Floyd and Louis in the lurch. Fast forward 20 years Hooks has died and Louis and Floyd who did not end on good terms and have not spoken since have been coerced into appearing a tribute show for Hooks at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre. Afraid to fly they get in Floyd’s 1971 Cadillac El Dorado accompanied by a talented young woman (Sharon Leal) who may be Floyd’s daughter. Along the way they try to get their act up to speed by appearing in various redneck honky tonks filling the interminable 103-minute running time with a lot of unfunny sexual encounters and unbelievable situations. The late Bernie Mac was a terrific comic talent and is highly wasted in this mishmash in which he is constantly encouraged to mug for laughs. Mac is so much better than the lowbrow material he has to work with here that it’s a shame this film should stand as one of his last (at least there’s Madagascar 2). Faring even worse however is Samuel L. Jackson who is out of his element in a musical comedy and seems to be taking none of this hokum seriously. Thankfully the soulful musical numbers reminiscent of classic ‘60s Sam and Dave R&B are well chosen and capably performed even though neither Mac nor Jackson are known for their singing. Best number in fact is fronted by John Legend making his acting debut as Hooks. As the young eager beaver manager trying to get Floyd and Louis back together Sean Hayes is way too broad. Faring better is newcomer Adam Herschman as Hayes’ mop-topped intern who uses his fanboy infatuation with the pair to nice advantage. And there’s a nice now bittersweet bit near the end with the late Isaac Hayes. Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) is a director who tends to go for the slapstick when a little subtlety and believability would be more in order. With a great Sunshine Boys premise and some nifty musical material to pepper the proceedings Lee still manages to drop the ball letting his talented actors down and encouraging them to chew up every scene. The corny silly situations certainly doesn’t help matters with the road trip device feeling more like padding than anything else. Soul Men doesn’t find the right rhythms.
What story? Does it really matter? Basically the Wildcats have graduated to the big screen for their senior year with the daunting task of -- guess what? -- putting on a big show. In addition to performance anxiety the singing and dancing kids must also figure out what to wear and who to bring to the prom. Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) in particular have to figure out what is to become of their romance when Gaby goes to Stanford while Troy stays in Arizona. Adding to the drama is the fact representatives from Julliard will be in attendance at the show and their approval could be just the showbiz break these young talents are looking for. All of this interstitial storytelling is just an excuse to launch into one of the 10 big musical numbers written for this theatrical continuation of the enormously successful Emmy-winning Disney Channel TV films and although the songs seem to have come out of the same cookie cutter mold the production values make this HSM an eye-popping celebration of song and dance that’s pure entertainment from start to finish. This attractive and energetic young cast have used the two previous films to grow into their roles and win instant audience recognition. It’s in the expanded and more demanding musical numbers that everyone really gets their turn in the sun and no one disappoints. Zac Efron channels Justin Timberlake with his athletic and singular “Scream ” a breakdance against the walls of the school’s hallway that’s pretty damn thrilling to watch. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of Fred Astaire’s classic dance on the ceiling in 1950’s Royal Wedding. Equally effective is his intense auto junkyard number with Corbin Bleu (returning as Chad) “The Boys Are Back ” is a lively paean to Michael Jackson’s ‘80s videos like Beat It. Hudgens does nicely with the largely forgettable ballads “Walk Away” and “Right Here Right Now” (with Efron). Lucas Grabeel back as Ryan goes all top hat and tails on us in the Broadway inspired “I Want It All” -- opposite diva-like Sharpay played with conniving authority once again by Ashley Tisdale. Monique Coleman as Taylor is right at home here as well along with the other veteran of the earlier films Olesya Rulin as Kelsi. Assuming the series goes on after graduation a new generation of HSM performers will be required and that is the apparent reason for the generous screen time given to younger newer cast members: Matt Prokop Justin Martin and young British import Jemma McKenzie–Brown. With director/choreographer Kenny Ortega at the helm the HSM concept has been opened up to fill the expanse of the big screen. At its core the musical numbers are much MUCH larger and grandiose than they ever were in the TV films. Ortega and his team have used bright vivid Technicolor images reminiscent of the heyday of ‘50s Hollywood musicals and married it to a contemporary approach. Still he seems to be channeling in some ways the elaborate Busby Berkeley movie musicals of the ‘30s particularly in Grabeel’s set pieces. Clearly Ortega ‘gets it’ and knows what style and verve a musical like this needs -- no matter how young the intended audience. Having the luxury of directing most of his primary cast in the two previous HSM TV outings he takes that small-screen energy and lets it explode in all its widescreen glory.